The Trailing Spouse Track

September 22, 2004

It's not that we thought the film Sylvia would have us rolling in the aisles. We just never expected that the story of a suicidal poet would remind us of our own circumstances as "trailing spouses" at Fancy University.

But then came the jolt of recognition, in a crosscut sequence representing the early part of Sylvia Plath's marriage to a fellow poet, Ted Hughes. The sequence looked something like this:

  • Ted lectures in an elegantly paneled hall, stuffed to the rafters with eager listeners. Meanwhile, in a Spartan classroom across campus, Sylvia addresses a gaggle of listless undergraduates.

  • Lecture over, Ted beams from the center of a ring of admirers, who rhapsodize about his work and scramble over one another to shake his hand. Sylvia walks home alone, teetering beneath a tower of student papers.

  • At a stylish party that evening, Ted holds court, matching wits with his fellow literati. Sylvia, poor thing, must leave the party early, in order to finish grading that mountain of (surprise!) horrible student essays.

I went to see the film with Lauren, a woman I'd met only a few months earlier, at Fancy University's New Faculty Reception. Technically both of us were new faculty members, albeit only part-time ones. But we had been invited to the reception as the anonymous "guests" of our husbands, newly hired on the tenure track there.

Naturally, that stung. But we'd resolved to keep our chins up and make the best of it. After all, we were shiny new Ph.D.'s in the humanities, blessed with energy, talent, and ample teaching experience.

Blame Gwyneth Paltrow for the dissolution of our cheerful facades. Or maybe we should thank her. Heaven knows we can't thank her for the ponderous movie that was Sylvia, but at least two in the audience were moved. Quaking with dejection and fatigue, Paltrow's Sylvia fumed at being stuck in her husband's shadow, and agonized over her own derailed vocation. Lauren and I sat in the dark campus theater and wept.

It turns out that Lauren and I have a lot in common. Both of us had moved across the country for our partners' promising new jobs, both abandoning positions at small universities we adored. (Hers was a part-time job, while mine was a full-time, renewable position with benefits.) Both of us had rushed to finish our dissertations the previous spring. And both of us eventually accepted gigs as part-time instructors at Fancy U., where we teach twice as much and earn less than half as much as our tenure-track spouses. Oh, and, as part-timers, we don't have health insurance.

Maybe it shouldn't have, but earning so much less than my spouse has troubled me. A lot. For one thing, it seemed to concretize our respective worths, as teachers and scholars.

I'd entered my marriage at the very moment that I'd exited grad school, and had managed to emerge debt-free after eight years in the latter. I was used to taking care of myself. While I definitely don't regard my beloved husband as the Ted to my Sylvia, the glaring inequity of our respective situations after graduate school did start to chafe. Having once shunned the idea of living apart from my spouse, I now found myself envying long-distance academic couples for their boldness.

When I responded to a departmental e-mail begging volunteers to teach summer classes, our chairwoman called me in for a face-to-face that I presumed would be some kind of interview. In fact, she wanted to apologize for having to rescind her promise that I would be allowed to teach upper-division courses, the single lure dangled upon the offer of my temporary appointment at Fancy U.

The chairwoman also informed me that I could never hope for summer teaching because, as she explained it, the university ranks me as "lower than a graduate student." Well, then! "Summer classes are offered first to the tenured faculty, then to the untenured, then to the graduate students, and then to ..."

She trailed off, gesturing in the direction of unspeakable me. Since she didn't seem to have a name for my category, I named it myself: "Suckers."

Don't misunderstand me. I don't for a minute believe that my husband's new employer owes me a tenure-track job. But it is clear that they got a hell of a deal in hiring Lauren and me. The alarming thing is that, short of abandoning academe, there doesn't seem to be a way off the trailing-spouse track. One woman up the hallway has been on it since the 1970s.

So, yes, with all due respect to Sylvia Plath, I'm cranky to have found myself feeling like her kindred spirit. I'm not a gifted poet, but I am a hard-working Ph.D. with multiple publications and, as of last spring, 24 independently taught courses under her belt. That's why I've decided to go on the market this year. Times are hard, yes. But it's time to take a shot at a real job, at a university all my own -- one that doesn't confiscate my "spousal privileges" library card for the summer.

Career-wise, I need a reason not to stick my head in the oven.

I hope my column will cover the vagaries of trailing spousedom that went uncovered in Lisa Wolf-Wendel et al.'s The Two-Body Problem (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) on dual-career couples. That thorough, but oddly antiseptic, study ignored the human side of its subject matter. It had little to say about the rants, the funks, the fights, the paranoias, and the depressions that are recurring problems for academic "two-bodies." Or about what happens to a marriage when the employment situation that is one partner's life-fulfilling dream is the other partner's esteem-crushing nightmare.

The column will also ruminate on what Lauren and I have dubbed the "equal-and-opposite reaction syndrome," or the likelihood that an academic couple will have one partner who must embrace the academic game and one who must scorn it. The former feels enormous pressure to get tenure and "succeed" on those terms. The latter ends up taking care of most of the "mundane" tasks (home repairs, child care). And, because none of that labor is validated by the academic institution, that person feels alternately liberated by and resentful of his or her partner. (We've observed that dynamic with straight, gay, and lesbian academic couples.)

We will offer strategies for how trailing spouses everywhere -- and our numbers are increasing each year -- can make the best of a less-than-perfect employment situation. That will include mental-health-saving tactics for auditing classes, joining (worthwhile) committees, and making personal connections. The university is more than willing to exploit you, yes. But when approached for career advice, many of your senior colleagues may be eager to help. They also make good role models and friends.

Finally, for the person like myself, who wants a more stable financial and family life, and who just can't take the indignity of trailing-spousedom anymore, this column will consider what it means for the trailing spouse to hit the trail ... and leave academe.

My husband and I do love each other, madly, and we do eventually hope to raise a kid or two. Those aspects of my life -- combined with the harsh realities of the humanities job market -- may eventually lead me down the "entirely new path" that well-meaning relatives so often counsel. "At least then, one of you could have a normal life," they say hopefully, as if I were married to a hamster.

It would only encourage those relatives to explain that, actually, I'm the hamster. As long as I'm a trailing spouse, I'm scuttling along on my hamster's wheel -- with zero destination and fresh cardboard shavings as my greatest possible reward.

That's why the phrase "former academic" may one day apply to me. And I'm willing to make my peace with that, if necessary. For the time being, Lauren and I have made a pact. Everybody gets out of this trailing spouse thing. And everybody gets out alive.

Vera Taz is the pseudonym of a trailing spouse and a new Ph.D. who this year risks (or preserves?) her marital bliss by going on the job market.